The Last Blast

After thirty years, NASA is sending its final space shuttles into the great beyond. Will we ever know again the ear-popping, heart-stopping thrill of the launch?
Photograph by Dan Winters

I have asked dozens of astronauts what it feels like to blast off, and words always fail them. A roller coaster is the standard analogy, with adjectives piled on to suggest that it’s something more thrilling and terrible, something inexpressible. Often their eyes clamp shut at the memory and sometimes they shiver. No one has ever answered with a smile.

When Endeavour blasts off this month, it could well be the shuttle’s last launch (another launch, of Atlantis, is scheduled for June 28, but it has not yet been funded). The end has been a long time coming. The generation of pioneers that conceived and designed the shuttle retired triumphantly decades ago, when outer space still beckoned Americans to another frontier. Emboldened by our flags and boot prints on the moon, we had plans for other planets and stars in our sights. And the shuttle would take us there. The least sexy spaceship ever imagined, it was never intended to be more than a cosmic truck capable of reliably delivering big payloads to low earth orbit at a reasonable cost, a service vehicle for grander dreams. But those visions—of men going to Mars and deep space—have not come true, and after thirty years of shuttle missions, the romance is gone, replaced by real-life experience of the cold, hard void. The fleet will soon be retired without having delivered what we had hoped to see by now: human beings on extraterrestrial trajectories.

Still, there were other dreams. Not so grandiose, perhaps, but meaningful nonetheless, human dreams that the shuttle made possible. Gathered together they form a legacy for the old space bus that enriches our vision of what is possible, which counts as serious progress to my way of thinking. And I am a hard-core space dreamer.

I’ve spent years hanging out at the Johnson Space Center ( JSC). I was usually credentialed as a journalist and filmmaker, but it was really the spirit of the place, that determination to boldly go, that drew me. I was there the day in April 1981 when Columbia was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on the inaugural voyage of the new Space Transportation System ( STS-1). Back then the center had closed-circuit TV with monitors everywhere, and we all watched rapturously as the revolutionary spaceship took off like a rocket and came home like a plane. I still have the mission patch; that’s the kind of

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